HKS Authors

See citation below for complete author information.

Director, Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation
Winthrop Laflin McCormack Professor of Citizenship and Self-Government


This paper evaluates the dynamics of small group persuasion within a large scale randomized deliberative experiment, in particular whether persuasion in this context is driven by the ideological composition of small groups, to which participants were randomly assigned. In these discussions focusing on U.S. fiscal policy, ideological persuasion occurs but does not tend to be polarizing, a result that is inconsistent with the “law” of group polarization identified in small group research. In addition, the results demonstrate the presence of persuasion that is net of ideological considerations, a residual form of preference change that we label “deliberative persuasion.” The direction and magnitude of deliberative persuasion are each associated with participants’ perceptions of the informativeness of the discussion, but not with the civility or the enjoyableness of the discussion. In addition, informativeness is most closely associated with deliberative persuasion for liberals who come to agree with conservative policies, for conservatives who come to agree with liberal policies, and equally associated for both liberals and conservatives on items that are orthogonal to ideology. The results show that small group dynamics depend heavily on the context in which discussion occurs; that much of the small group experimental work pays little to no attention to this context; and that deliberative institutions are likely to ameliorate many of the pathologies that are often attributed to small group discussion.


Esterling, Kevin M., Archon Fung, and Taeku Lee. "Ideology, Deliberation and Persuasion within Small Groups: A Randomized Field Experiment on Fiscal Policy." HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP13-036, September 2013.